Le Pavillon d'Armide; L'Après-Midi d'un Faune; Bolero

Programme 3: Diaghilev Festival - Les Saisons Russes du XXIe Siècle
London Coliseum
(2011)

The final programme of the Diaghilev Festival brought to the London Coliseum by its artistic director Andris Liepa is the least contentious of the three. This time it is not strong design but the music of Nikolai Tcherepnin, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel which is the uniting energy of the evening.

L'Après-Midi d'un Faune (1912) and Bolero (1928) are no mystery to us in the West, though this original Bolero has, apparently, not been seen in Russia till now. But in the 1970s Maya Plisetskaya of the Bolshoi did perform in Maurice Béjart's dramatic unisex version.

Nikolai Tsiskaridze, a rather succulent mature Faun, reprises the infamous Nijinsky role, immersing himself totally in the 'scandalous' choreography. And Tatiana Tchernobrovkina is a graceful nymph. Bakst's Fauvistes / Der Blaue Reiter set design is luscious, its saturated colours eclipsing the Faun in his camouflage.

Ravel's and Bronislava Nijinska's passionate Bolero is driven by the St Petersburg State Academic Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Alexander Titov, with crashing volume swelling to a pulsating orgasmic climax, which the dancers struggle to attain. This is a tired company: soloist Alexander Tchernov looked near collapse under the fiercely hot lights.

On the other hand Ilze Liepa, the faux flamenco dancer on a vast central tabletop surrounded by lusting men in Benois's Goya-esque Barcelona setting, is a cool Hitchcockian blonde. Liepa seems to have cornered the dark Ida Rubinstein parts. Rubinstein, a friend of Ravel's, asked him for a new ballet for her, and he obliged with this - it took him all of two weeks, apparently.

The curiosity of the evening was the romantic Le Pavillon d'Armide, another museum piece 'reconstructed' by Jurijus Smoriginas after Fokine, design by Anna Nezhnaya after Benois, again relying on written reports and images.

The description of Le Pavillon d'Armide in Richard Buckle's 1980-revised Nijinsky biography gives the lie to the authenticity of the reconstruction. Last seen in London in 1911, the most traditional of the ballets in the whole programme, it is a pastiche of Petipa's Imperial ballets, with echoes of the Sugar Plum fairy in Tcherepnin's lovely tinkling movement for Armide's delightful solo.

There has been another 'reconstruction' of Le Pavillon d'Armide by Nikita Dolgushin in 1993, eight minutes of which can be viewed on YouTube, as can, remarkably, a few frustrating seconds of Nijinsky in the original.

Benois, inspired by Théophile Gautier's mysterious and erotic Omphale, wrote the libretto, and created a rococo outdoor fête galante Versailles set with obelisks and real fountains. The story is that the Gobelin tapestry comes to life, which is not immediately manifest in this version.

Alexandra Timofeyeva smiles and charms with her dancing, Andrei Mercuriev is fine as the Viscount de Beaugency and her Rinaldo (the same person - two intertwining stories, real and magical), whilst Mikhail Martynuk takes on the small role, Nijinsky's role, of her favourite slave.

This was the role that so shook le tout Paris in 1909. Nijinsky soared into the wings on a leap the height of which the audience had never seen before. There is little evidence of that here. Is it ever possible to do justice to a legend?

There is magic, romantic solos, duets, and pas de trois, waltzes, divertissements aplenty, pretty tableaux, Nubian slaves (too 'Black and White Minstrels-y' in their face paints for a Western sensitivity), jesters, a dance of Eastern roly-poly buffoons, and courtly couples in elegant formation. But, the lack of framing clarity slightly undermines the beautiful display, if not the dancing.

After seeing the whole Saisons Russes programme of seven ballets one comes to the realisation that the 'reconstructions' are rather loosely based re-imaginings - re-imaginings with green laser lights that have startled the London critics.

One and two star critical responses have ranged from the scathing to the pitying, from calling the performances offensive to the memory of Les Ballets Russes to the milder having one's tolerance tested, to being in Purgatory. Though best of the three, Programme 3 was not Purgatory, but it wasn't Heaven either.

On reflection what stands out of a memorable experience are: the astonishingly vivid sets; Alexandra Timofeyeva and Andrei Mercuriev's dancing; prima donna Nikolai Tsiskaridze seemingly a law unto himself (those who have seen the 2007 documentary on Christopher Wheeldon's attempts at choreographing Hamlet at the Bolshoi in Moscow would know that already); Ilya Kuznetsov being underused and Ilze Liepa overused. An overextended company in an overambitious programme.

The souvenir programme, overpriced at £10 (opening night only £8), was poorly produced with many errors, unclear texts, and clumsy translations - and this was the opinion of a Coliseum insider Many grumbling patrons would have been grateful for clearer synopses.

Questions remain should dead and buried ballets be exhumed for the stage by brazen promoters, or should these treasures be left to cautious museum curators? Can the delicate fabric of the past, the reputations of both the exhumed and the exhumers, be destroyed by misplaced fervour? Should one doubt effusive historical records?

Did Sadler's Wells have the right idea in 2009 in paying homage to Diaghilev's Ballets Russes with In the Spirit of Diaghilev, a commissioning of new choreography from young choreographers, one of whom was sitting in front of me during this very programme - doing his homework?

Reviewer: Vera Liber